It was 5 o’clock in the afternoon and the car’s thermometer marked a more-than-warm 33ºC. What the heck was I doing out on the drylands of Lleida at this time of day? Magpies perched motionless and gasping under fig leaves, there were no bird calls or birdsong to guide me to my next subject, and I was out birding! Was that really a wise move?
Two days earlier I had been out and about in my plucky red Suzuki, guiding three birders from Scotland around the different drylands of Lleida and searching for their key species. By the time we reached the Alfés drylands we had already bagged a good number of the most important birds: a small flock of Little Bustards (often difficult to locate after the end of the breeding season), Rollers in double figures, Lesser Kestrels, a few Montagu’s Harriers, a Lesser Grey Shrike, 4 Black Wheatears, a couple of Black-eared Wheatears, and even 2 Black-bellied Sandgrouse (a species which I had put down as “possible, but unlikely”).
But the afternoon lull was having its effect and, despite my local knowledge and efforts, we had not set eyes on either the Pin-tailed Sandgrouse or the Red-necked Nightjar. To my great surprise we had only just managed to find a single flock of Calandra Larks, uncommittingly accompanied by three Short-toed Larks.
It had been different then. I was working, the morning cloud cover had kept us cool until well after midday, and I hadn’t just had a tiff with the wife.
So in comparison to the charged atmosphere at home the prospect of a little hot birding was almost inviting. I told myself I would also have the chance to look for the Red-necked Nightjar and the Pin-tailed Sandgrouse in the places where they should have been two days before, when it really counted. Although the clients who had already missed the birds would not thank me for e-mailing them “You know we dipped on Red-necked Nightjar and Pin-tailed Sandgrouse at Alfés? Well, this afternoon I went back and…..”, I would at least be able to satisfy my own curiosity, and also have some indication of whether or not it was worth coming back with the next birding folk.
I was about to give up on the nightjar when a movement caught my eye and I managed to focus on the bird gliding silently at grass height before landing beside some brushwood. Although I mentally marked the spot where it landed, I had no-one to show it to, so I returned to the car with mixed feelings. “Found it!”, yes, but also “Where were you two days ago?”.
I spent the next couple of hours making short surries from the air-conditioned car, and seeing nothing but the odd Thekla Lark or inactive Roller. Was this really the best way of spending the afternoon? Wouldn’t it have been better to kiss and make up? Sod it! It wasn’t me who was at fault!
The car had picked up a familiar coating of dust and mud by the time I finally found the Pin-tailed Sandgrouse. A single bird stretching its neck and peering at me from above a small field of brittle dry weeds.
Mission accomplished. Well, sort of. Now I had a ten-minute drive back home. Maybe just enough time to plan how best to say I was sorry to my dear wife.